There’s a bill before South Dakota lawmakers that would temporarily lift the statute of limitations on sex crimes against children.
It’s part of an effort by survivors of child sexual abuse. They want justice for crimes they say happened decades ago at a Catholic boarding school in Marty, South Dakota.
A warning, this story includes sensitive material and content that might not be suitable for children.
It took decades for the nine Charbonneau sisters to talk about the years they spent at the St. Paul Catholic boarding school. The sisters are members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. As girls, they attended there in the 1950’s to the 60’s.
Louise Charbonneau, who’s in her 60s, says only after their mother died more than ten years ago, did she and her sisters talk about sexual abuse they say they endured at the school. Their allegations include assault, molestation and rape.
“Later, when we got together then, it all came out,” Louise Charbonneau says. “It was the most horrific day. I can’t—I can’t begin to explain what that day was like for all of us.”
For decades the sisters internalized their abuse. They joined a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese in Sioux Falls and the Blue Cloud Abbey for alleged child sexual abuse in the 1950’s and 60’s. They sued some of the alleged perpetrators and four entities, including the diocese. In 2012, state courts threw out the Charbonneau sisters claims.
Louise is one of nine family members who attended the Catholic boarding school on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. It was 500 miles away from their home on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.
Louise’s sister, Gerri, says she was raped when she was 16. Months later, near her 17th birthday Gerri started getting morning sickness. She says she was placed in the school’s infirmary and was forced into an abortion.
“They always kept a fire burning,” Charbonneau says. “It was the incinerator room, what we all called it. I know now that’s where they put the unborn child. They burned it in that incinerator.”
The Charbonneau sisters, along with many others, allege the Catholic Diocese knew about the abuse at the St. Paul boarding school. Litigation in cases like these can be a challenge. Many of the abusers are long since dead.
A case the Charbonneau sisters signed on to, was thrown out in 2012. That happened in part, after the state legislature placed a statute of limitations on child sexual assault claims against entities, which includes the church.
Michelle Echols is also a member of Turtle Mountain tribe… and a lawyer working with the Charbonneau sisters to amend the state’s statute of limitations.
“This 2010 statute made it virtually impossible for any Native American boarding school survivors to pursue their claims in court,” Echols says.
The bill before lawmakers now temporarily removes that statute of limitations. It could provide a two-year window for abuse survivors, like the Charbonneau sisters, to bring their claims forward. The Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese says it takes no position on the proposed legislation that would temporarily lift the statute of limitations.
Freshman Republican Representative Tamara St. John is the prime sponsor of this bill. She says it could give survivors the chance to seek justice.
“They’ve not had any recourse of ability to address this in anyway,” St. John says. “I think it would be a way to begin to maybe heal. It’s something that would at least provide an opportunity forever on for them to not feel the state of South Dakota is responsible for blocking them or barring them to ever have justice.”
This isn’t the first such bill introduced to amend the statute of limitations on child sex crimes in South Dakota.
Steve Smith is a lawyer from Chamberlain who has represented church entities and clergy accused of abuse. He helped lawmakers implement the statute of limitations law in 2010. Smith did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He says he wants to see the language of the proposal before speaking on it.
In prior testimony Smith has been against similar tweaks to the statute of limitations. He says the restriction is necessary to protect state entities like the church from perpetual lawsuits spearheaded by out-of-state lawyers.
Some say there is a larger issue involved in this case – and others like it across the country… the rate of violence in and against native communities. Victoria Sweet is an expert on tribal law and justice. She says there’s a lack of information about violence against native women.
“We really want to get a national presence and start a national conversation and have people recognize how incredibly disproportionately our community is being impacted by violence, particularly against our women and children.”
A proposal before the U.S. Congress called Savannah’s Act, would have required law enforcement agencies to keep better tabs on that information. The measure has stalled. Sweet says the crime data is a starting point to seek justice on a larger scale.
Gerri Charbonneau says she can define what justice means.
“Justice, for me, would look like the Catholic Church in Marty, South Dakota, crumbling to the ground. That would be justice, because that’s where a lot of the sexual abuse took place.”
Charbonneau says from the rubble of that boarding school, she, her sisters and community can rebuild and begin to heal.